The 2016 U.S. presidential election was a contest fought through many channels, and the internet figured chiefly among them as a means for organizing and disseminating information. It has also been used to spread false reports and claims, and given the high stakes and tensions that have arisen since Donald Trump’s win last Tuesday, that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
On Saturday, a false report was posted online by Christian Times Newspaper that was based on footage from a beating that took place in North Philadelphia on April 7, 2015 and altered to give the impression that it had just happened—and that anti-Trump protesters were the perpetrators.
According to the site’s account, protesters burned a flag at a Sunoco gas station in the city’s Olney neighborhood and beat a homeless veteran, 51-year-old Mark Rolfe, so badly that he died after being taken to a nearby hospital early on Saturday morning.
The excerpt below is taken from Christian Times Newspaper’s version:
Protests against President-elect Donald Trump turned violent in a Philadelphia neighborhood Friday night, and they left one homeless veteran fighting for his life on a night when the nation was celebrating his service. And it was all captured on surveillance video.
Mark Rolfe, 51, passed away early Saturday morning from injuries sustained when he was attacked by a group of protesters outside of a Sunoco gas station in the Olney neighborhood of North Philadelphia. Rolfe was a veteran of the United States Army, serving one tour in the first Gulf War and one tour in Afghanistan.
According to eyewitness reports, Rolfe was attacked by a group of young adults who were out protesting the election of Donald Trump. The group of protesters, who have not been identified, were attempting to set fire to an American flag when Rolfe yelled at them to stop. The protesters responded by attacking the homeless veteran with a hammer, a piece of wood, and a table leg.
That account also included a line mentioning how “Friday’s attack certainly paints [the protests] in a different light.”
One of several problems with this story is that it describes an incident that occurred on April 11, 2015 that was completely unrelated to the protests occurring around the country since the election. Additionally, the website included a doctored video with a graphic overlay over the original footage that obscured any evidence of the actual timing of the event. Here’s a screen shot taken from that altered footage:
Later that morning, Snopes.com posted a corrective report in response that linked to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s story published on April 11, 2015 about the beating, which occurred at an Olney Sunoco and involved a 51-year-old homeless man. According to that original story by Inquirer Staff Writer Aubrey Whelan, an altercation occurred after a 10-year-old boy claimed the man, who was offering to pump gas for spare change, had hit him.
Here’s more from Whelan’s story:
Investigators, reviewing hours of footage from the station, said there was no evidence the 51-year-old man ever hit the boy.
But the boy’s mother needed only his word.
That evening, she and friends and family members – up to seven of them – pulled up at the station in a friend’s minivan and spilled out with Mace, a hammer, and a rocking chair leg in hand, police say.
Video from the station captured the brutal, agonizingly prolonged beating that followed and that left the 51-year-old victim near death in a medically induced coma.
There was no mention of the man’s name or if he was a veteran, and no flags were reported burned at the scene, either. Snopes added a link to a follow-up story from a local ABC affiliate reporting that the man had died in Nov. 2015 and that murder charges had been filed against three women after his death.
Christian Times Newspaper had also changed the man’s name; his actual name was Robert Barnes, not Mark Rolfe.
A Facebook account under the name “Rep. Trey Gowdy for Speaker of the House” picked up the false story on Saturday, prompting user Maurice Tessier to comment: “Buy a gun and learn how to use it, protect yourself and your family, thats one of the reasons we voted for Trump in the first place!”
Another tipoff about the bogus nature of Christian Times Newspaper’s footage and report could be spotted by any news editor with rudimentary training, given the grammatically incorrect headline, “Homeless Vet Beaten Dies,” grafted over the original.
Truthdig put in a call to the Philadelphia Police Department’s public affairs contact with a request for comment about the original incident but had not received a response as of press time. A representative from the department’s Northwest Detectives unit, whose phone number was published at the end of Whelan’s story, declined to comment.